Can they do it again? That is the challenge for the Rangers as they enter the 2022-23 season, which begins Tuesday at Madison Square Garden with a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who eliminated them from the playoffs in the spring, beating them in the Eastern Conference finals in six games.
Can goaltender Igor Shesterkin replicate his Vezina Trophy-winning season from 2021-22? Can Chris Kreider match his 52-goal output from last season? Can the Rangers, one year after completing a wildly successful rebuild, make it to the Stanley Cup Final this season? Can they win it?
Well, the answer to most of those questions is, why not?
The Rangers didn’t finish last season with a record of 52-24-6, and 110 points, by accident. They had Shesterkin, who carried them for the first couple months of the season, and whose .935 save percentage led the league, and they had Artemi Panarin scoring 96 points. They had Kreider scoring a league-leading 26 power-play goals, and Mika Zibanejad continuing his rise into the NHL’s elite among two-way centers, and they had the league’s fourth-best power play, orchestrated by 2021 Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox.
All those players are back, as are defenseman Jacob Trouba, the new captain, and his defense partner, K’Andre Miller, who made huge strides in his second NHL season last year and looks ready to elevate himself into the league’s elite defensemen this season. Alexis Lafrenière, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020, scored 19 goals in the regular season last year and had a big postseason. His playoff linemates, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko, enter the season with a confidence they haven’t had before now. Joining the mix is center Vincent Trocheck, the former Carolina Hurricane, who replaces Ryan Strome as the second-line center.
They do have some question marks, to be sure. They will need to find suitable right wings for the top two forward lines, guys who can mesh with Kreider and Zibanejad, and Panarin and Trocheck. That was a problem for coach Gerard Gallant last season, until GM Chris Drury landed rentals Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp at the trade deadline. Both left as free agents over the summer.
The Lafrenière-Chytil-Kakko line was the Rangers’ most dynamic in the playoffs and has been their best in the preseason, but Gallant may have to break up the trio and spread them throughout the lineup to try and improve his other lines. Kakko was getting a look late last week in the spot next to Kreider and Zibanejad, and old friend Jimmy Vesey, back in camp this fall on a professional tryout (PTO), was getting a look with Panarin and Trocheck.
Lafrenière, a life-long left wing, may have to switch to the right at some point, to get into the top six forward group. And if he and Kakko are taken away from Chytil, can the 23-year-old Czech be effective playing with guys like Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais and Vitali Kravtsov?
There’s also the major caveat that good health for their top players is a must, especially in the case of Shesterkin. The 26-year-old Russian has missed time in each of his three previous seasons with a groin strain, and the Rangers are expecting him to carry an even heavier workload than last season — 53, plus another 20 in the playoffs — his career high in a single season.
Jaroslav Halak, signed as a free agent, makes sense as a backup who doesn’t figure to play much if Shesterkin is healthy. But if something unfortunate should happen to Shesterkin and Halak ends up having to play more than 20 or 30 games, that would be a problem — a big one.
If all goes well, though, the Rangers, as presently constructed, should once again be battling with Carolina for the Metropolitan Division title, and once again among the league’s top 10 teams.
There’s no reason to think Shesterkin will take a step back (his lifetime save percentage in the NHL is .928), and if it’s unrealistic to expect Kreider to score 52 goals again, any dip in his production should be made up for by increased output from the Rangers’ 23-and-under crowd of Lafrenière, Chytil, Kakko, Miller, Braden Schneider and Zac Jones.
The Rangers are good. And their Stanley Cup window is open.